Summary: November 30th 2022 to December 16th 2022

Orcas: A34s, A23s, A25s


Dall’s Porpoises

Let’s begin with an introduction to Camille and Mathieu who have taken over the caretaking duties at OrcaLab for the winter. Cam and Mat hail from France via Montreal and were introduced to us by assistants Jérémie and Claire. Jérémie and Claire come from the same area in France as Cam and Mat but the couples met in Quebec. Cam and Mat bring with them an enthusiasm for whales, the ocean, the west coast and seem more than up for the challenges ahead. Since landing on the rocky shores of Hanson Island they have been rewarded by seeing and hearing  humpbacks. Cam heard dolphins and both she and Mat saw Dalls porpoises on their way to one of our remote sites. Bigg’s orcas also introduced themselves both physically and vocally on separate occasions. All this in a very short time leading Cam and Mat into quick lessons in everything cetacean. To top it off, came the Northern Residents, first the A34s and then the A23s and A25s. School was definitely in! 

On November 30, just days after Paul and Helena left Hanson Island but with Claire and Jérémie still there instructing Cam and Mat, the distinctive calls of the A34s were heard in Blackfish Sound. It had been so long! Not since September 4 had Northern Residents been heard. The communication channels lit up immediately with exclamations of joy. In the back of everyone’s mind was the knowledge that the A34s (part of the A1 pod) had graced the area for only one day in July. As the Fall progressed the expectation was that they would come back as this had been an historic pattern. But time and long days ticked by and no sign until this mid-morning in November. 

Claire immediately recognised the A1 calls and knew instinctively that it was the A34s. Alex Morton saw them off Donegal Head and reported that they were heading southeast. 

Jared and Ely prepared to go out despite the snowy conditions. Indeed by the time they caught up with the whales they were committed to travelling towards Blackney Pass. It took the whales a while as the current was going against their efforts. By 11:23 there was some very clear echolocation, further proof of their anticipated arrival. Everyone was either on deck bracing against the cold or busy in the Lab with the recording and monitoring the video camera. At noon exactly the first fin was visible off Burnt Point to the left of the Lab. The whales, perhaps sensing they were making progress, became vocally excited. More arrived. Over the next hour the entire family travelled past the Lab.

Jared and Ely followed along taking pictures managing to take pictures of whales, the Lab, the people on deck (though small and obscured by falling snow) while those on deck returned the favour and took pictures of them and the whales offshore.

 By 12:58pm all had cleared in their respective close groups. The hydrophones in Johnstone Strait soon marked their progress as they crossed from Cracroft Point to Kaizumi on the Vancouver Island shore. The first members arrived there by 1:33pm, others took a while longer. Calls remained on multiple hydrophones for some time as the whales coordinated their travel. The Strait was “alive” once again with these familiar orca calls. It was wonderful.

Two Humpbacks, including Hunter, remained in Blackney Pass while all the flurry of orca activity progressed.

Just after 3pm, some of the A34s began a six-minute rub at Kaizumi. Ely mentioned that the A62s had been in the lead and suggested that this was most likely them. True to their travel formation earlier a second part of the family, perhaps the rest, followed the A62s lead into this beach at 3:23pm. This rub lasted a minute shy of an hour. There were some amazing calls.

From there the A34s made their way east slowly and calls shifted away from the Cracroft Point and Kaizumi range to that of Strider further east. 

Not to be outdone, a humpback began calling off Cracroft as well at 5:52pm just prior to when the A34s approached Strider beach. The humpback stopped calling after a while but the orcas continued. Then at 6:25pm the humpback, now closer to Strider himself, began to once again call. The orcas never stopped. By 6:47pm the humpback subsided somewhat and an orca made a cursory pass over the beach.

Two hours later there was another short effort in the same location. At 8:48pm another short rub at Strider began and ended at 8:52pm. The feeling in the Lab was that the A34s then continued east past the Ecological Reserve. Cam and Mat must have by now got a pretty good impression about how orcas are always on the move.

The rest of the night was uneventful as the A34s stayed most likely out of range of the hydrophones until early morning at 4:30am when very distant calls lasted for an hour. It was now December 1. The rest of the day proved uneventful except for a few distant humpback sounds at 10:20pm nothing heard.

December 2 did not disappoint however. Starting at 10am distant A1 calls were heard once more in Johnstone Strait. The family seemed to be spread out as they moved westward. They passed Cracroft Point and the entrance to Blackney Pass (5:23pm) most likely closer to the Vancouver Island shore. By 6:30pm those monitoring the Telegraph Cove hydrophone noted how close the calls sounded. For those at the Lab or listening to the calls were only very distant and ended just before 7pm as the whales were at the far western end of Johnstone Strait.

It was now December 3. A few more calls occurred after midnight but it was difficult to assess where the whales were exactly, perhaps still west of Blackney. The night time recordings did not pick up anything until 6:24am.  At least they had not left and probably now moving back east. They arrived at Kaizumi at 8:30am and went in for a rub. The rub ended 15 minutes later and the A34s carried on to the east from there. By 10:08am they were approaching Strider where a rub began at 10:11am. This one lasted until 10:20am.  By now it seemed as if the A34s had settled into a routine of travelling up and down the Strait. Sure enough they soon turned west again. This time they did not dawdle. They came all the way to Cracroft Point and turned into Blackney Pass by 12pm and within forty minutes they had cleared into Blackfish Sound. 

The hopeful expectation was that they would most likely do a circuit around Hanson Island and return to the Strait. It was not to be and the A34s disappeared to where they had come from just three days before. Sigh, they were gone.

But the Lab was not quite done. On December 4 there were Bigg’s orcas heard between 8:34pm and 9:21pm in Johnstone Strait. Then ten days later on December 14 the Northern Residents were back. This time it was the A23s and A25s. 

Alex issued the first alert just before 9am when she saw a group of eight orcas spyhopping. She was pretty sure it was not Bigg’s orcas as they rounded Donegal Head and travelled through Weynton into Johnstone Strait. When their calls became audible in the Strait it became very apparent that these visitors were from the A5 pod. Claire, who by this time was back in France with Jérémie, was listening and knew instantly that she was hearing A5 calls. Jared and Ely took advantage of the conditions and headed out from Alert Bay. They identified the A23s in the lead with the A25s following some distance behind. Rubs were on hand at Kaizumi just before 12pm and then at Strider at 3pm. They wasted little time turning around afterwards and by 4:17pm the Cracroft Point hydrophone was hearing their calls once again. By 6:49pm they were approaching the area opposite Telegraph Cove. On their journey westward they had most likely travelled closer to the Vancouver Island shore. By 9pm there were no further calls heard and  the assumption was that they had left the area.

 December 11 had  marked the 53rd anniversary of Corky’s capture. Corky is part of the A23s. Stripe or A23 was Corky’s mother. Fife (A60) and Ripple (A43) are Corky’s brother and sister. Last year,  at this same time, A5s (Corky’s pod) visited Johnstone Strait. Coincidence?

It is now December 16 and Cam and Mat continue to settle into the routines of winter living managing the power situation and staying warm. More snow is in the forecast and early this morning they heard Biggs orcas calling once more.

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